Sep 032018
 

Cruise destination vacations are one of the most popular ways people choose to spend their off time and for good reasons.

Variety:

There is no end of entertainment, activities and food options. In one place you can watch a broadway show, try Pina Colada soup, go gambling, get a massage, watch a movie under the stars, learn about a culture,shoot down a waterslide, play mini golf and enjoy wine tasting all in one day! Or lay around and do nothing. Everybody loves choices. This is especially true for families or multi generational travelers. My boys like the dance clubs, waterslides, laser tag, etc. I like the water slides but I want to see art, sip champagne and lay in a lounge chair and have a pool boy bring me food. On a cruise you really can have it all.

Ease Of Travel:

Unpack once and done. Also, if you are going to go on excursions someone picks you up and drops you off (mostly) and one of my favorite things about cruising is that I can see multiple countries without having to deal with the logistics of getting there. If I find a place I love I can plan a vacation to go back there for a longer visit.

Escapism:

Being on vacation is largely about getting away from it all and it’s hard to feel more away from everyday life than being on a cruise! Limited WiFi (although that is changing) the open sea, no cars or interstates, no fast food chains. A cruise becomes a community seperate from the rest of the world; whether you are on river or ocean cruise,  whether the ship is big or small.

Being Out To Sea For Days On End! 

Well, duh! Enough said.

On the other hand, most new cruise ships are HUGE! Giant floating resorts that hold 5,000 people, 20 decks, tiny cabins, looonnng waits for the elevators and almost too much going on at any one time. It can be intimidating. I have been lucky enough to sail on many types of vessels; sightseeing sail boats, ferries, old fashioned  pirate ships, whale watching ships, catamarans, canoes; you get the idea but I still love ocean cruising the most and have learned some things through trial and error (mostly error) that I have jotted down and I hope they help you get the most from your next cruise. If you prefer a more intimate sea faring experience there are still plenty of options for you to get the vacation you want and I believe these tips still hold value.

  1. Be Organized. This will help you from the planning stages all the way through to disembarkation. Being organized will help you be efficient as well. Start with must haves. Documentation is the single most thing you need. Passports, Visas, your boarding pass, id etc. Have a safe and easy to reach place for these things. Call the bank to let them know you are traveling, making sure you have enough medications for the entire trip, have a hard copy of all your shore excursion and/or reservations.  I make a checklist and put reminders on my phone for things I know need to do. Like the online check in. Doing the online check in helps you get through the line faster. You will have your boarding pass, you will know your boarding time, you can alert the ship to any food allergies, special occasions. You can reserve shore excursions, specialty dining and spa packages. The site will let you know any luggage restrictions as well as information about drink packages. For Carnival if you pre-buy your drink packages and wifi you get a discount. You can also find deck plans and a list of what amenities the ship has.
  2. How to pack smarter. This is a hard one for me, and a lot people probably. I have learned how to roll my clothes tight, to put my necklaces through a straw, put my socks and belts in my shoes and the value of ziploc bags and most important, not to overpack. When you travel you know you are going to buy things anyway; so don’t pack half of what you own. It’s another of those checklist things. Am I going hiking? So I need good shoes and bug spray and sunscreen; do I need a cute new hat and a special “hiking shirt”? No, I do not. Shop early for travel size toiletries too. Those can be pre packed. Anti bacterial wipes and air freshener for that tiny bathroom are must haves. Don’t forget that your bags get taken to your room and you don’t go to your room for a while sometimes for better than an hour. We always have a small backpack with our bathing suits and sunscreen because the pools are open. The only things that aren’t open right away is the Casino and the shopping. So keep a easy to carry bag with you while you wait to go to your room, esp. if you have medications you have to take. I also keep a water thermos with me so I can refill up water whenever I want. Bottled water on a cruise ship is not free on most major lines. The last night of your cruise you are required to leave your luggage outside the door so it can be prepped for disembarkation.  Keep things you need with you in the morning in a small bag, just like when you first board the ship.
  3. Shop around for Shore Excursions. I love saving money! Who doesn’t right? For this reason I start shopping around for shore excursions  early. First, go on the cruise lines website and see what they sell and how much it costs then do your own research and see if you can get the same thing for less. There are a few things to keep in mind and the most important one is to make sure the vendor you are booking with is reputable! Get customer reviews, call them if your can, find real pictures not the ones on the website. Make sure the excursion includes all costs and if they will pick you up and take you back to port and how long it is. For the most part we book our own, there are times booking with the ship is a good idea.  If the excursion is far from port, lasts a long time or is in a truly exotic port. Also, if the cruise line specializes in that particular city or if the excursion comes with risks, i.e. helicopter tours, parasailing or float planes. Cruise lines will put your safety above all else and they vet the vendor so you don’t have too. While we were in Cabo we had to tender to port and I booked the excursion with the cruise line because I got to be on one of the 1st tender boats off the ship, it saved me a ton of time. Other than that I book my own especially if I am staying close to port or just hitting the beach or shopping.

    Port Cities offer Traditional Performances.

  4. Know yourself. Being on vacation can be liberating! A chance to unwind and try new things and you absolutely should! But, you are still you at the end of the day. If you can’t walk 3 miles at home don’t plan a 8 mile hike; you won’t have any fun. If you don’t like musicals don’t go to the theater for a 45 minute musical show. Prone to seasickness? Maybe don’t book a cabin on the very front on a high deck, and don’t book a guaranteed cabin if you are picky about where you sleep! You will most likely be disappointed. Not a gambler? No problem, go to the spa. I didn’t book a Mayan Ruins tour because it was going to be 98 degrees that day and I am not into a group tour listening to a guide, I went to the beach came back early and hit the pool. The ship was not crowded and it was great. I do try new foods and new activities but I know my limits. Well, sort of. I did try to hit the party deck on NCL’s Getaway every night, which I am not really cut out for and the last day slept until 11am. Oh well, it was probably worth it.
  5. Watch the upsell. There are things on a cruise line that are not free, such as drinks, spa treatments, specialty dining. There is always someone trying to get you to buy more things.  So you have to know what is free and what isn’t before you go. The ship planner will let you know what food is included and what isn’t. A lot of cruise lines will offer discounts on specialty dining if you book the 1st night or will offer a lunch menu for a reduced rate versus the regular night time fare. Drink specials abound as well; again check the planner for drink coupons, happy hours, go to the art auction for free champagne, listen for what shop offers free mimosas, look for the bartender shows and events you can score free or reduced drinks. Same thing for Captains Dinner. For the spa book treatments on port days because the cost for the same thing is reduced on days the ship is docked.  If you are big drinker or want to book a week at the spa pre buy at your online check in or the 1st day on the ship. Again, check out the package specials on the website first and make sure you read up on what is included in your package and what is not. Departing out of TX? Your drink package does not apply til the next day. You can still buy alcohol but it is limited and must be in compliance with TX state law, New York has similar laws. If you are booked in a suite or are lucky enough to have booked a special fare that includes drinks, or even better, are able to afford a luxury cruise line or a river cruise this would not apply to you. Good job and drink on!
  6. The Ship Planner is your best friend:  It is always in your cabin and you get a new one each day. In it you will find all the activities, when they start, what they are, what deck they are on and a brief description. It will give you schedules for shows, guest lectures, and any drink specials. Basically, anything you need to know not only about the ship but the ports of call. Times you will be in port, some points of interest and what time you need to be back on board. The planner makes a great souvenir.
  7. Maximize your time. Be early, but know that you will board by sections. If you have a suite you will board earlier or if have a certain loyalty status; or for Carnival you can pay for a “Faster to the Fun” pass. Book those early, spaces are limited and they sell out fast. When you first board you can go to the pool, eat and drink and check out the specialty dining and get a good feel for the ship.; but you can’t shop or gamble. If you can book a later flight off the ship I would highly recommend it! The cruise line will assign you a disembarkation time but if you are asking to leave later I have never been turned down for changing time to later. I sleep in and have leisurely breakfast, and walk the promenade one last time. It’s pretty nice, and it makes disembarkation a little less hectic because the people in a hurry have already left.

    Water taxis will take you around Cabo for some great photo opportunities

  8. Ships have personalities. Not all ships nor cruise line are created equal. If you are looking for longer times in port or more authentic experiences? Azamara, Windstar and Regent are among some of the top ones and usually are very inclusive-and extremely expensive! Princess and Oceania are a good mid price option. The reason is simple. The more time they are in port the less money off the guest, but with the higher end cruise lines the client expects more. If you are looking for jam packed itinerary and endless entertainment and food options, try Royal Caribbean and Norwegian and the newer MSC ships. These ships are floating cities. Are you a culinary explorer? Celebrity cruises sweeps accolades from cruise critic. Viking gets top marks in the small ship category. Check out this link from an earlier post I wrote about cruise ship personalities. https://roamingredfeather.com/2018/04/17/how-to-find-the-right-cruise-vacation-fit/
  9. Don’t be afraid to ask for more. At the dining room you will get a menu offering a 3 to 4 course meal. Don’t be afraid to be ask for 2nds, or 2 appetizers or desserts. When we were on Carnival the ship was sold out and my boys (teenagers at the time) got 3 servings of lobster and we each got 2 desserts. On NCL my husband couldn’t decide between 2 appetizers so she brought both.  We have even had a waiter go to a different bar to get a drink I really wanted. Remember, this is a courtesy and not normally allowed. The staff will generally do whatever they can do to make you happy, but please, ask, don’t demand and understand if they can’t. For most ships room service is free but some cruise lines charge a  delivery fee. The daily planner will include any charges. The staff work very hard with almost no days off for way less than we would ever be paid; so don’t hesitate to ask for what you want but be always be nice and tip generously or give good reviews or both.

Fun Facts:

  • Your cabin is magnetic. Carry on some magnets and you can stick your cruise planner, coupons, notes, etc to the wall.
  • Some cruise lines offer extended stays that include hotels, sometimes meals, day trips and transfers to the ship. For example, Princess offers many opportunities to extend your Alaska vacation.
  • Set dining times are a thing of the past. While most cruise lines still have the set dining times almost all offer a flexible dining time where you can go to dinner wherever and whenever you want. This is one of my favorite things. If I wanted a schedule set for me I would have stayed at work.
  • You can get married on board. Cruises are romantic and cruise lines offer a fair variety of options and budgets. Some of the most popular ones are Princess and P&O Cruises.
  • Cruise ships have a jail. Okay, so maybe this one isn’t fun, but it is important to know. Security and safety on a cruise ship is very important. So behave or get sent to the brig until you get to the next port or to the home port where you will be handed over to the port authority.
  • Your ship may leave without.  Yes, I know, not fun either. I am really off track now, sorry; but still important. If you are late coming back after the ship schedule says you need to be back be prepared to be stranded. Especially if you didn’t book with the ship. If you booked a tour with the ship and something happens-i.e. the tour bus breaks down the ship will wait for you, but that is about the only reason.
  • Look under the bed. Ship cabins are not very spacious but you can usually find extra storage under the bed.
  • The water is filtered. I love ice cold water but I don’t want to pay for bottle water; I don’t see the point. I pack a stainless steel water bottle and there are water stations all over the ship. The water is filtered under the regulations of America and Europe.

Disney is premium product that is worth the cost. Book early and don’t expect a casino or alcohol packages. Do expect outstanding service and attention to detail.

Cruise Critic is one of my favorite sites for reviews of ships, destinations, ports, excursions and whole array of useful tips. Plus, you can find a page called Roll Call it lets you talk to other passengers on your specific cruise. You just have join and enroll it’s easy and free and very useful. You will have friends before you even start. https://www.cruisecritic.com/

You can also click on my travel agent Expedia Website to see some cruise options out there. You can search by date, destination, cruise line etc. https://www.cruiseshipcenters.com/en-US/RhondaWeaver

Happy Sailing and as always another insights or tips or stories you have learned the hard way are always welcome.

Apr 172018
 

Every vacationer(s) have their own wants, interests and needs (WINs) but not every cruise line is the same so you can’t just pick a random one and ta-da, cruise vacation mastered! It doesn’t work like that.

Cruise lines, like people, have personalities. One person described it like trying to be matched up for a date, and they were correct. You need to find the right fit.

Port cities sometimes have great amenities

Start with the needs. When is your vacation? How long? How many people? What is your budget? Do you need handicap accessible?  Once you have that, you have parameters.

Interests: What does everybody like? Beaches? History, culture, food, relaxing, adventure. You get the idea. If you are travelling in a large group this can be trickier. This is exactly why I love cruising. Cruises give a person multiple options on any given day; in port or at sea. One day I can zipline in Juneau then I can lay in hammock for the next 4 hours on the ship, it’s great, because you don’t have to choose one path. Plus, with multiple people everyone will find something. I like to go see the shows, my boys like the dance clubs and nature tours, my husband is a gambler. In port, I can pick up souvenirs and other people in my party and go to a museum and others can go on a rum factory tour and we all end up back at the same place with no fuss.

So, let’s discuss wants: It’s like the interests. Not everyone’s will be the same. I want a balcony cabin, my husband wants as cheap as possible. Some people want cabins that come with perks like a butler, free specialty dining, or complimentary wine. Some want a truly authentic experience or more time at port. I have had clients who just want to go on a specific ship or 1 specific location that special meaning. So what I am going to do is give a brief and basic outline of some of the more popular cruise lines. If you want more detailed information leave your email in the comment section and I can assist with your needs.

Carnival has a huge fleet with plans to add a roller coaster to a future build.

Main line cruise lines: For families or those looking to pack as many things on one ship I recommend Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, MSC and Carnival. The newer ships are  bigger, feature cutting edge technology-including GPS trackers for your family and feel more like resorts than ships. Huge water parks, outside movie screens, Aqua theaters, zip lines, race car tracks, surf simulators, the list goes on and on. Kids clubs for 3 and older are free, they have different character partnerships. RCI  partners with DreamWorks, although not on every ship. Carnival-Dr. Suess, NCL is ending its partnership with Nickelodeon, MSC features Lego brand.

Kids clubs for ages 3+ are free as are the activities, not shore excursions though. Most cruise lines have 4 categories and cater to that specific age group. Sometimes you can purchase a late night babysitter but book in advance as it sells out and space is limited. Don’t be surprised if you barely see you kid.

Ships go to places you can’t drive or fly to.

Keep in mind, not all ships in these lines will have the same features. Visit the site to get specifics or Cruise Critic before you book. If you need a handicap accessible you may need to call directly or get your travel agent to call for you. These cruise lines have connecting cabins but they are limited so book early. For people prone to sea sickness avoid cabins in the front of the ship. If you have a group of 8 cabins or more you may qualify for a group rate or perk. Speaking of rates and perks, these also vary widely. Booking suites can get you free drink packages and specialty dining, look for dates when kids or 3rd and 4th guest sail free, or free tips or excursion credits. RCI and NCL will have these more often. MSC usually has free kids offers in the summer and have different perks based on cabin you choose year round. Carnival is usually the lowest price so you won’t all those extra perks, plus they most restrictive as far as refunds or changing dates.  Royal Caribbean does have the highest amount of  loyal guests, but all ships offer perks for loyalty. For Princess I am Elite and I get free pre dinner appetizers, laundry service(1 time) priority everything-which comes in handy when tendering and an invite to the Captains Cocktail party. Keep it mind that these lines are not all inclusive. You pay for specialty dining, drinks, spa and sometimes room service; so don’t assume about what is included. If you booke suites and sometimes balconies you do get more inclusions. Each cruise line is different so research the specific cruise line. Norwegian’s Sky has a free open bar and MSC ships offer drink packages and spa options, wellness options and upgrades based on your cabin type.

What about Disney? They are an entity unto themselves. Disney is a premium product. Service and food and attention to detail is superb. It doesn’t feel like a Disney Resort at sea and you aren’t over run with Disney characters. Soda is included-not included on other main line cruises. No alcohol packages-only wine and the adults only areas feel very sophisticated, you must check out the spa! There are not many Disney ships, they are expensive, space is limited. You must plan a year out and do not expect price drops or any add-ons. More things are included, wi-fi for instance.  They still mail items- a thing of the past. Personalized luggage tags and a cool dvd. All of these cruise lines will offer military discounts-not on all sailings or sometimes senior or resident discounts. Disney consistently wins awards for service, shows and food.

For a more adult experience I will talk about Princess, Holland America and Celebrity. For smaller and intimate ships Princess and Azamara offer a good balance and value. FYI, Amazara and Celebrity are on the higher end of the price spectrum but offer an amazing vacation experience.

Ships have beautiful features.

Holland America caters strongly to an older crowd. No late night parties here. What they do have is great food, beautiful ships, a very fair rate, a focus on live music and they offer around the world sailings. Holland also goes to some less traveled ports and focus on destination enrichment. Princess cruise line is very similar.  You can experience local traditions and entertainment when you visit port. Princess has top of the line entertainment and food. No waterparks but the Movies Under the Stars runs newer movies and their newer ships have a skywalk-a glass floor bridge that extends over the side and a cool water/light show at night. Both Princess and Holland have great add on tours for before or after your cruise. MSC fits this list because of the refined an beautiful decor of its ships and elegant restaurants. MSC hangs on to some traditions like the formal Officer and Gentleman dance party. The shows are Broadway style and the White Party and the Brazilian Carnival Party are not to be missed. Meravilglia features Cirque du Soleil.  Celebrity Cruises are more swanky-you can really see the class divide in it’s service perks and restaurants. But, it serves some unique culinary experiences and the ships are beyond beautiful. Celebrity sails everywhere, including yachts that travel to the Galapagos! The cruise line is noted for being LGBTQ friendly. This cruise line is another big winner for Cruise Critic awards year after year, including Best Overall, Best Dining, Best Public Rooms, Service and overall value.

If you can drop some serious coin and want a more inclusive experience then look into such luxury brands as Crystal, Regent of the Seven Seas, Cunard, Seabourn, Azamara and Windstar among others. These cruise lines( for the most part) include drinks, shore excursions, tips, all dining, transfers to the ship and back to the airport. The name of the game of these cruise lines is pampering and an authentic experience. Bigger cabins, smaller ships, stunning decor, personalised service and strict adherence to maritime tradition all make luxury cruise liners are vacation apart.  You will find longer cruises to more exotic ports and more overnights and excursions tailored to your needs. A much more intimate experience and not the myraid of entertainment and no hairy let contest by the pool.

The bottom line is that there is a cruise ship out there that is right for you, no matter what your needs might be; but it does take research and thought. The cruise industry has a overall satisfaction rate of 94% and all cruise lines are adding on ships, many are  adding several ships and now Viking River Cruise line has ventured into ocean cruises and Virgin is launching a line of adult only cruise ships. So, the choices will grow even more, so if it seems like a lot find yourself a good travel agent and roam fearlessly to that horizon!

Book tours to see the best of each port.

For some ideas of cruise deals going on now please visit my Expedia Travel Agent site for update information or leave your email and inquiry below and I will try to get in touch you. https://www.cruiseshipcenters.com/en-US/RhondaWeaver

Oct 132017
 

Last April I was able to snag a great price for a 5-night cruise to Cabo San Lucas out of Los Angeles on the Ruby Princess.  We booked a transfer from the airport to the ship; which I would recommend, LAX is a disaster of an airport. It saved us so much hassle. The check-in process at the cruise terminal was a breeze, we were on the ship in less than 10 minutes.

The cruise was only 5 days; and since it was less than 7 days Princess did not do the champagne waterfall or the balloon drop, which was disappointing. However, the ship itself was so beautiful! The Ruby Princess has 4 pools, a great sanctuary at the front, the piazza was classy with a 24-hour cafe, and an outdoor movie screen.  The promenade deck is nice and wide, the pools are large and not usually very crowded. Movies Under the Stars played newer movies.

The food was VERY good! I am not a big meat eater, but I became very carnivorous on my vacation. The gelato was outstanding and was totally worth the $1.50 for 3 scoops.  The 24-hour cafe is on deck 5 and has a decent variety. The weak point was definitely the buffet. The food was decent but it was the smallest I have ever seen, leading to major congestion. Plus, they bring you your drinks, no drinks on tap. One of our tablemates waited over ten minutes for a glass of milk. Everyone is nice and they try; there just isn’t enough staff to meet the demand.

The shows and comedians were just outstanding. Magic to Do was very fun and best of all, Princess used locals from Cabo for performances, both in the showroom and in the Piazza.  We both enjoyed the Festivals of the World featuring the local songs of Mexico. They also had very colorful skull banners in the Lobby. 

Of course, it being a Princess cruise, we had to celebrate the whole “Love Boat” theme, with a really cool deck party and videos of the cast and crew on the big movie screen on the pool deck.

The aft pool was my favorite, it is a terraced area which is great for viewing and close to an extended part of the buffet. The Schooner Bar has great replicas of tall sail ships and Princess partners with Norman Love for some amazing chocolates.

Cabo itself is really beautiful. The beach goes on forever, the rock formations are interesting. The vendors are beyond pushy!  We were supposed to go snorkeling but they canceled the excursion due to choppy waters. So we hung around the beach, found a great place to eat; Senor Sweets, and a cool surprise. The Avengers! Next to the shopping mall is a comic book store with life-size replicas of my favorite superheroes! We saw Spider-Man and the Joker too. 

Since we had no excursion, we ended up taking a glass bottom boat out to the arches and to see colorful schools of fish. The sea was rough which made the waves coming through rock formation even better. There was a large colony of sea lions enjoying the sun, barking up a storm.

Even though I never did get to go snorkeling and I was bummed there was no champagne waterfall, and Princess should spend more money on adding staff; overall I loved the Ruby Princess, the whole experience struck the right balance between having plenty to do and enough downtime to relax and unwind-the Sanctuary is a great place to spend an afternoon chilling, being pampered and enjoying the sea. It’s also the best place to have the afternoon tea!

One last thing, Princess will close off access to 5, 6 and 7 which is where many public venues are. So you have to walk outside around and come back in, but if go to the photo gallery on deck 7 it traverses the whole length of the ship.  There are no water slides or rope courses on this ship and the miniature golf is a joke, but the Ruby Princess is a great, entertaining and beautiful ship and I hope to sail on her again soon.